Studies show plasma does not help COVID-19 patients but doctors still prescribe it

A bag containing blood plasma from a donor at ILBS hospital, in Vasant Kunj, Delhi on 18 July 2020. Biplov Bhuyan / Hindustan Times
29 December, 2020

In November, Nitin Niranjan spent a week searching for a plasma donor for his 63-year-old mother. She was in an intensive care unit in a hospital in Delhi, hooked to a ventilator. Her health was deteriorating quickly. The hospital had a plasma bank with units that matched her blood type, but refused to give it to her till her family found a donor to replace the units of plasma the patient would use. Niranjan created a Twitter account for the first time and used it to look for donors. He even considered paying for a radio advertisement. On the sixth day of his search he found a family friend ready to donate. Niranjan is a 37-year-old government school teacher in Jalaun district in Uttar Pradesh and the sole earning member of his family. He spent most of his life’s savings for his mother’s treatment. She died despite getting a plasma transfusion. 

In August, The Caravan reported on how COVID-19 patients and their families were scrambling for plasma. More and more doctors were recommending the treatment for which there was little regulation. In October and November, two teams of researchers from India and Argentina published separate scientific studies, both which showed that convalescent plasma therapy did not help COVID-19 patients. Even in December, people are still struggling to get plasma for severely-ill family members.

Doctors around the world have relied on experimental therapies and repurposed drugs during the coronavirus pandemic. In most cases, there was little evidence that these therapies actually worked but doctors used them as long as they believed they would do no harm. They were throwing everything at the disease, hoping something would flush the virus out of their patient’s collapsing bodies. As the year progressed, medical researchers worked out which treatments workand which do not.

Plasma therapy is a process in which doctors draw blood plasma from people who have recovered from COVID-19 and transfused it into people still ill with the disease. The theory is that neutralising antibodies in plasma will help the person receiving the transfusion fight off infection. However, two randomised controlled trials indicate that plasma therapy does not decrease mortality or recovery period among hospitalised patients.